There are two things about Charlie Mae Wilder that will never change: her love of fancy, colorful hats, and her dedication to her community and church.
Wilder turned 90 last week, and she slowed down — if you can call it that — just long enough to accept birthday wishes and enjoy her big day.
As soon as her day started, Wilder was in prayer.
“I (thanked) my Lord and savior Jesus Chris for allowing me the number of years he’s allowed me to be here,” she said. “I can get around. I can dress myself. I can cook my food. I can drive my car. And I’m still helping people.”
Even on her birthday, she was thinking of others. She picked up boxes of food from a fellow church member and delivered them to people in need.
“I didn’t want to get complacent, so I started to do some work around the house to make sure we keep that up,” Wilder said. “I’ve always worked on my birthday.”
Her next stop was at an Orlando senior center she frequents for fellowship. She was celebrated there too.
That evening, the city of Winter Garden feted Wilder at City Hall prior to the commission meeting.
“I was on Cloud 9,” she said. “All these people from the city, from the mayor on down. They were so nice.”
Her church of 47 years, Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, celebrated her a few days later.
THERE IS WORK TO DO
Her birthday is over, and there is work to be done in her east Winter Garden community, where she has lived since 1976.
Wilder is one of the neighborhood’s biggest advocates, and she keeps herself busy with memberships in multiple organizations and boards designed to promote and improve the community.
Her latest affiliation is with One Winter Garden, an organization created to support unity and participation and advocate for the historic community. The group works alongside the city of Winter Garden, West Orange Habitat for Humanity and other organizations to meet the community’s needs and goals.
Wilder has received many accolades for her work and service. Most recently, she has been part of an exhibition paying tribute to local women who have made a difference in their community. Curated by the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation, “West Orange Women: Making History Part I” currently is on display at Winter Garden City Hall.
Wilder organized the Winter Garden Community Garden in 2009, and she maintains her plot and continues her service as garden executive director. She said there is talk of getting some chickens because the price of eggs is so high.
A few years ago, she was chosen as the Winter Garden Christmas Parade grand marshal and greeted parade attendees from a convertible as she cruised through downtown.
She was named a Citizen of Distinction in 2010 by the local Culture Keepers organization. She won a Heritage Builder Award from the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation in 2016. She received a Kitty J. Ellison Service Award in 2019. She helped open the Mildred Dixon Community Center and its Neighborhood Center for Families. She founded the Young at Heart Seniors Inc. group and served as president and executive director. She organized the East Winter Garden Community Development Co-op Inc. She reorganized the West Orange Citizen Action Coalition Inc. and was president and executive director of that too.
She worked hand in hand with another east Winter Garden activist, Mildred Dixon, and together they made great strides in the community. Dixon was a Winter Garden city commissioner, and when she died while in office in 2006, Wilder was appointed to fill the seat for the remainder of Dixon’s term.
Wilder had other city responsibilities too. She chaired the city’s Code Enforcement Board and served with the Community Redevelopment Agency and the Recreation Board.
She organized the Community of Love Outreach Ministry, which continues today. Every Thursday, she shares God’s word and then serves lunch from tables set up in her yard. Any leftover food is packed up and delivered to shut-ins.
A LIFETIME OF RESPONSIBILITY
Charlie Mae Hayden Wilder’s sense of responsibility was ingrained at a young age. She was born in Bainbridge, Georgia, in 1933. Her daddy wanted a boy, so she was given his first name, Charlie, and her mother’s middle name, Mae.
Wilder learned to take care of her family and her community at an early age. She was the baby of 11 children, but her mother gave her many responsibilities. She taught all of her children to respect God, themselves and others.
“She taught all of us to do the best we could everywhere, but in the meantime, most of all, she taught us to not forget to study the word of God and to pray,” she said. “You don’t pray amiss, you pray believing. That He is who He is and He will do what He says He will do for us. It’s kept us afloat, really.”
Whenever her family had extra books of stamps for groceries and provisions, her mother shared them with neighbors.
Her mother worked long hours at the Alberta Crate and Box Company
“Sometimes she would work 10 hours, 40 cents per hour,” Wilder said. “But she would come home, and once she made sure we had food and everything, if there was someone who was ill in the community, we all had to go. When she would get there, she would do whatever needed to be done. Whether it was cook for them or clean up for them.”
Sundays were church days, and it was mandatory that the entire family went.
“It was no saying, ‘I don’t want to go to church today because I don’t feel like it,’” she said. “(Mama said) ‘You’re going to feel better when you get there.’ And we had to do something; we had to sing or do a poem or something. She did not allow us to just go and sit.”
It was in childhood that she developed a love of hats.
“My mother always wore a hat,” Wilder said. “‘If you’re a lady, you’re going to look like a lady,’ she said. And she would make us wear those little hats that children wore. I’ve worn hats since I was a little child.”
Wilder is the last survivor of her siblings. Her family consists of two nieces in Orlando and her granddaughter, who has special needs and lives with her.
Her introduction to Winter Garden came when she was attending a church conference and met Pastor Frank Edward Wilder. Their friendship turned into romance, and he brought her to his church and community — and his family of nine children — in Winter Garden. They were married nine years and together for 47 before he passed away in 1985.
Charlie Mae Wilder, who also is an ordained minister, has spent decades in service at Bethlehem MBC. She has supervised the youth department and served as director of Christian education, counselor for the Young Women’s Auxiliary, instructor for the deaconess ministry and sang in the choir.
“Whether they want to listen or not, I like to sing,” she said. “Sometimes in singing, if you have a problem, something that’s pressing on you, can just sing it off. It’s good for you. Music is an international language.”
She also was the church’s daycare director for eight years.
Wilder worked for Orange County’s social services department for 31 years, starting as a social service aide before being promoted to director, center manager and area supervisor.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
Wilder knows the importance of education and would like to have more programs promoting it. She earned her bachelor’s degree in 2010 and is thinking about getting her master’s.
She wants to see more training sessions for youth and adults with a focus on literacy, finances, parenting and history.
“If you don’t know your history you won’t appreciate your future,” she said.
She wants to see parents more involved in their children’s lives.
“They need attention,” Wilder said. “You don’t go out there in your garden and plant a seed and forget about it. You’ve got to water it and pull the weeds, and you’ve got the pull the weeds from these kids.”
Wilder quotes scripture often, especially when talking to parents.
“I like to talk to parents about their children. … Proverbs 22: 6: ‘Train up a child in the way he should go. And when he is old he will not depart from it.’ And then training requires verse 15 – ‘Foolishness is in the heart of the child but the rod of correction will drive it far from him.’
“Parents need to take control of their child,” she said. “We need to take them off the streets.”
To fulfill the need for more training, Wilder wants to have her own facility built on property she owns across the street from her home.
“If I live long enough to have a house built on my property, two story, I hope to have in that place a training room,” she said. “It can be done if you put your mind to it, put your heart in it. You’ve got to feel it. And remember that it’s not you that’s doing it. It’s the one that we call Jesus, God’s son.
Wilder said she has no plans to stop.
“Some of my friends tell me, ‘If I was your age, I’d be home in my rocking chair,’” Wilder said. “I said, ‘You keep on rocking. I’m going to keep on going and helping somebody.’ An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.”